Category Archives: animals

Episode 232: Almost Domesticated



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Thanks to “dog freak Ruby,” we’re going to learn about some animals that aren’t exactly domesticated but aren’t really wild either.

Further reading:

Memories of Ángela Loij

Mongolian horse and its person:

Mongolian horses:

OH MY GOSH HEART HEART HEART (photo from this website):

Dingos!

An artist’s rendition of the Fuejian dog (left) and a picture of the cuelpo (right):

The cuelpo, happy fox-like canid:

A very fancy rat:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Before we get started, and before I forget again to tell you about this, I’m planning a bonus Q&A episode for August. If you have any questions about the podcast, podcasting in general, me, or anything else, feel free to email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com, or otherwise contact me through social media!

A few episodes ago I mentioned in passing that the Australian dingo is a type of feral dog. It’s a more complicated situation than it sounds, so while I didn’t want to confuse the issue at the time, I kept thinking about it. Then I remembered that a listener emailed me a while back wanting to know more about how dogs were domesticated. We covered the topic pretty thoroughly back in episode 106, but I realized that there’s an aspect of domestication we didn’t cover in that episode. So thanks to “dog freak Ruby,” here’s an episode about a few animals that are only semi-domesticated.

Domestication, after all, isn’t a switch you can flip. It’s a process, and depending on the animal species and the circumstances, it can take a really long time. It’s not the same thing as taming an animal, either. An individual animal might become tame with the right treatment, but that doesn’t mean any individual of that species would react the same way. Domesticated animals show genetic changes that their wild counterparts don’t, changes that make them more likely to treat humans as friends instead of potential predators.

Generally, a fully domesticated animal requires some level of care from a human to survive, even if it’s just feral cats living near humans so they can find and kill rodents and avoid most predators. Feral domesticated cats don’t live the same way as their wild ancestors do. But sometimes it’s not as cut and dried as it sounds. While mustangs and other feral horse populations are considered domesticated animals, they live like wild animals and don’t need humans to survive. They mostly just need humans to leave them alone so they can thrive on their own. But if you capture a mustang that’s lived its whole life in the wild, with the right treatment it will eventually become tame, because its ancestors were bred for thousands of years to trust and depend on humans.

That brings us to our first semi-domesticated animal, the Mongolian horse. Yes, I’m still really into Mongolia and the Hu, and I’m excited to say I have tickets to see the Hu twice in concert this fall, if everything goes well. I’ve been listening to a program called the Voice of Mongolia in English, which is primarily a shortwave radio program but it’s also released as a podcast, and it talks about various aspects of Mongolian culture. Recently they had an episode about horses, so some of my information comes directly from that show.

Mongolia is a country in central Asia that’s mostly open steppes, which is a type of grassland. The soil isn’t right for most crops, but it’s great for horses. The people of Mongolia are traditionally nomadic, moving around from place to place to find grazing for their horses and other livestock, and about half of the current population still lives this way.

The Mongolian horse is a small, tough breed that probably hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years, possibly longer. It’s one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world and the ancestor of many other horse breeds. For a long time people assumed it was the domesticated descendant of the wild Przewalski’s horse, but genetic testing has determined that domestic horses developed from a different wild horse species that’s extinct now. Genetic testing also showed that the Mongolian horse has the highest genetic diversity of any horse breed tested. It’s incredibly strong for its size, can gallop for miles without tiring, has strong hooves that never need trimming or shoeing, and seldom needs or receives veterinary care.

The main reason for all these traits is that Mongolian horses live like wild horses in most ways. They live loose, grazing as they like, and if they get too far away from their humans, the owners will go out to find them. But they’re still domesticated. Mare’s milk is an important part of the Mongolian diet, so the mares are used to being milked, and people use their horses to ride, carry packs, and pull carts. The stallions are frequently raced. At the same time, though, they’re not really pets. Mongols don’t give their horses names, but instead refer to them with a detailed description. The Voice of Mongolia in English says the Mongolian language has over 300 words to describe horses, while Wikipedia says it’s over 500. Either way, the terminology is so precise that everyone knows exactly which horse someone’s talking about, which if you think about it is more useful than a name.

The Australian dingo is in a similar situation. It’s considered a feral dog breed, but it doesn’t need people to survive. Most feral dogs throughout the world barely scrape by, eating garbage and rats and often dying of starvation or disease. Dingos live like wild animals and do just fine. But at the same time, they’re happy to hang out with people from time to time, acting as hunting companions who are neither dependent on humans nor frightened of them.

The dingo is a strong, tough, lean dog that stands around 22 inches tall at the shoulder, or 56 cm. It has flexible joints like the Norwegian lundehund we talked about in episode 230, which allows it to climb cliffs and fences and otherwise navigate difficult terrain. It’s usually a yellowy or ginger color, sometimes with small white markings, although some dingoes are black and tan. It can survive on very little water. It often hunts in packs and will hunt animals larger than it is, like the red kangaroo.

The dingo was probably brought to Australia by humans, although we’re not sure when. Dingo fossils have been found dating to 3,500 years ago in western Australia, so it was at least that long ago. Genetic studies show that the modern dingo and the dingo of 3,500 years ago are pretty much identical. It also shows that it’s definitely a domestic dog, related to other dog breeds that were once common in Asia around 7,000 years ago, but which are rare now. It’s most closely related to the New Guinea singing dog, which makes sense since New Guinea is so close to Australia. Until somewhere between 6,500 and 8,000 years ago, New Guinea and Australia were connected when sea levels were low. Genetically the two dog breeds have been separated for about 8,300 years, which suggests that the dingo has been in Australia for at least that long.

Traditionally, Aboriginal Australians would take a dingo puppy from its den to keep as a pet, a hunting dog, or sometimes a herding animal. Sometimes the dingo would stick around when it was grown, but sometimes it would return to the wild. There’s a lot of controversy about breeding dingoes as pets, since it would be easy to breed the wild traits and behaviors out. Since the dingo has been killed as a livestock pest since white settlers arrived in Australia, in many places its numbers are in decline and there are worries that the wild dingo could go extinct. There are already problems with the dingo cross-breeding with other dog breeds. It’s a complicated topic, because while the dingo is a dog, it’s not precisely domesticated at this point but also not precisely a wild animal.

There used to be a domesticated canid in South America called the Fuegian dog, which was probably used as a hunting dog, especially to hunt otters. On cold nights, the dogs would wrap themselves around their people like living blankets so everyone stayed nice and warm.

The Fuegian dog wasn’t a dog, though. It was the domesticated form of the culpeo, also called the Andean fox. It’s actually not a fox although it looks a lot like one. It’s related to wolves and jackals, and it lives on the western slopes of the Andes Mountains all the way down to the southern tip of Patagonia. It eats small animals like rodents and introduced European rabbits. While the culpeo is sandy or tawny in color with gray on its back and a black tip to its tail, the Fuegian dog was sometimes brown and white or all white. Reportedly the Fuegian dog was not very tame in general and was an aggressive animal compared to actual dogs. It would hunt on its own and basically acted like a wild animal that just happened to hang out with humans a lot, like the dingo does today.

The culpeo is doing just fine, but the Fuegian dog is extinct. The Fuegian dog was tamed by a Patagonian people called the Selk’nam [shelknam], or ‘Ona, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They lived in such a remote part of South America that Europeans didn’t encounter them until the late 19th century when settlers showed up to raise sheep and rubber trees. We’ve talked about what happened to them in a previous episode, although I can’t remember which one. The Selk’nam didn’t understand the concept of livestock, so they figured those sheep were literally fair game. The sheep were living on their own hunting grounds, after all. The Selk’nam killed some of the sheep, and in retaliation, the European settlers murdered all the Selk’nam. I was going to tell you the name of the man who started the genocide, but I don’t think anyone should remember his name. It wasn’t just “oh, you killed my sheep, I’m going to shoot you because I’m mad,” either. There was a bounty on Selk’nam people, and that’s all I’m going to say because it’s just too awful and disturbing.

By 1930, only about 100 Selk’nam remained alive, and the very last member of the people, Ángela Loij, died in 1974. There’s a link in the show notes to a page with lots of information about her as a person.

In 1919 when Christian missionaries visited what was left of the Selk’nam, they discovered that all the dogs had been killed off by the people themselves because the dogs were too fierce and killed livestock. It sounds like a last, desperate attempt by the Selk’nam to stop the murder of their people by keeping their dogs from killing any sheep. But by then it was too late, and the genocide wasn’t really about the sheep in the end. It was racism and hatred. Remember that all people are equal, no matter what they look like or how they live. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Okay. Let’s finish with the story of another semi-domesticated animal, one that doesn’t involve people being terrible to each other. The kind of rat you can buy as a pet is considered semi-domesticated, and it hasn’t actually been domesticated for very long. The person mainly responsible for the pet rat is a man called Jack Black. Not the actor Jack Black; this was a different guy who lived in the mid-19th century.

Jack Black was a ratcatcher in London, England who said he was the Queen’s official rat-catcher even though he wasn’t. He was definitely an extravagant character who always wore what he called his uniform, which included a big leather sash over one shoulder decorated with rats made of iron, a crown, and the initials V.R. for Victoria Regina, or Queen Victoria. He told people the queen herself gave him the sash, but actually his wife made it for him. Black also carried a big domed cage with him to hold the rats he caught.

He mainly caught rats to sell to people who were training their dogs to kill rats, which was also a popular thing to watch. I mean, that doesn’t sound like any fun to me but this was before video games were invented. Occasionally, though, Black would catch a rat that had interesting markings or that was an unusual color. These rats he would keep, tame, and breed to produce more rats with different colors and patterns. He sold the tame, pretty young rats to people as pets. He especially liked white rats, which made popular pets then and are still popular today.

Pet rats, usually called fancy rats, are a subspecies of the brown rat, or Norway rat, which we talked about in episode 143. We also talked about Jack Black briefly in that episode, but at the time I didn’t realize he wasn’t really a royal rat catcher. By 1900 fancy rats were popular pets and remain so today, and are becoming more and more domesticated. If they’re not fully domesticated they’re well on their way, all thanks to a guy who thought rats were neat.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 231: Fish of the Twilight Zone



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Let’s learn about some strange fish of the mesopelagic, or the twilight zone deep in the ocean! Thanks to Page, Joel, Anonymous Animal Lover, Brigham, and Fireburster for suggestions this week!

Further reading:

In Defense of the Blobfish

Further viewing:

Pacific viperfish (video embedded)

The Pacific viperfish, head-on (or rather teeth-on), still from video linked above:

Sloane’s viperfish, rocking those teeth:

The blobfish as it’s usually seen on the internet:

The blobfish as it looks when it’s cozy in its deep-sea environment:

The barreleye, which I have helpfully labeled for you:

Look at the bristlemouth’s sharp thin teeth! Good thing it’s only a few inches long:

An indignant bristlemouth (someone should take MS Paint away from me):

The bristlemouth is the most abundant vertebrate in the WORLD (photo by Paul Caiger):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Where on earth does the time go? Suddenly we’re halfway through 2021 and I’m still vaguely thinking we’re only a few months in. I’m getting seriously behind on listener suggestions, so let’s have an episode about some weird fish that’s all listener suggestions. Thanks to Page, Joel, an animal lover who wants to remain anonymous, Brigham (whose name I hope I’m pronouncing correctly), and someone who calls themself Fireburster. Fireburster and Anonymous Animal Lover also both left us really nice reviews, so thank you! I picked all these suggestions at random, just grabbing fish suggestions that sounded interesting, but the great thing is they all turned out to live in a specific part of the deep sea.

Brigham and Fireburster both suggested the same fish, so let’s start with that one: the dragon fish. Neither of them specified which kind of dragon fish they’re talking about, though. It’s a popular name for weird fish of various kinds. We’ve even talked about a few before, the Pacific blackdragon of episode 193, which was coincidentally suggested by Page, and the barbeled dragonfish in that same episode. That’s the episode about William Beebe’s mystery fish, which happens to be my current favorite.

We only talked about the barbeled dragonfish briefly before, so let’s learn more about them now.

The barbeled dragonfish gets its name from the filament that hangs down from its chin, called a barbel. If you’ve ever wondered what the proper name for a catfish’s whiskers is, they’re also barbels. The dragonfish’s barbel has a photophore at the end that produces blue-green bioluminescent light, and the fish flashes the light to attract prey. Its head is large and its jaws are full of sharp teeth, so when an animal comes close, CHOMP! The barbeled dragonfish grabs it.

The dragonfish isn’t very big, with the blackdragon that we talked about in episode 193 being the largest at only 16 inches long, or 40 cm. Most species are about half that. So what happens when an animal the same size as or even bigger than the dragonfish happens along?

The dragonfish eats it, that’s what happens. It has large jaws that it can unhinge to swallow prey that’s bigger than it is, and its stomach can expand considerably to hold whatever it swallows. Mostly it just eats tiny animals like krill and amphipods, though.

We don’t know a whole lot about dragonfish. Various species live throughout most of the world’s oceans, especially in tropical and subtropical areas, and they don’t live in the deepest parts of the ocean. Instead, they’re found in what’s called the twilight zone, or more properly the mesopelagic. Only 1% of all light shining down from the surface makes it down this far, which is why so many animals produce their own bioluminescent light. The dragonfish also has photophores along its sides that it can flash to help attract prey or attract mates. On nights when the moon isn’t too bright, the dragonfish will migrate closer to the surface to find more food, but it makes sure to go back to the twilight zone before the sun rises.

[twilight zone music]

One genus of dragonfish is called the viperfish, and they’re a little different from other dragonfish. Instead of a barbel on the chin, viperfish have a light at the end of a long spine that’s a modified dorsal fin. This is similar to the anglerfish we’ve talked about many times before, even though dragonfish and anglerfish aren’t related. Convergent evolution, at it again!

The viperfish has teeth so long they don’t fit in its mouth. Instead, they stick out, which gives it its other name of fangfish. Sloane’s viperfish has the largest teeth of all the viperfish species, so long that they form a cage across its mouth to stop prey from escaping before the fish can swallow it. Unlike most dragonfish, Sloane’s viperfish sometimes swims toward its prey very quickly, slamming into it and wounding it with its fangs. It even has a sort of built-in shock absorber in its spine right behind its head. The Pacific viperfish can also be aggressive when hunting.

This is probably a good place to learn a little more about the twilight zone, AKA the mesopelagic. It’s measured not by depth but by how much light is available from the surface, in this case only 1% of light. There’s also not as much oxygen in the water here as at the surface. Many, if not most, animals that live in the mesopelagic migrate closer to the surface at night to find food, then retreat to the darkness below to avoid being seen as the sun rises and fills the upper layers of water with more light.

Lots and lots of animals live in the mesopelagic, from giant squid to oarfish, although most of the animals here are small. Below this layer of water is the bathypelagic, and below that is the real depths, the abyssopelagic where conditions are extreme and life gets really weird and scarce. The uppermost layer of the ocean is called epipelagic, if you were wondering. No plants live in the mesopelagic or below, because there’s not enough light. Obviously, the ocean isn’t always deep enough to have a bathypelagic layer or below, and quite often the mesopelagic ends at the sea floor.

It’s hard to study mesopelagic animals because many of them can’t survive at the surface. They’re built to withstand the increased water pressure at depths up to 3,300 feet, or 1000 meters, below the surface, and when they’re dragged up in nets they often die within minutes. Many marine animals have an organ called a swim bladder that’s filled with gases, which helps the animal stay neutrally buoyant in the water so it doesn’t float upward or sink downward when it’s not moving. The animal can adjust the amount of gas in its bladder as it swims upward, but when it’s pulled upward quickly in a net it can’t expel enough gas fast enough and the swim bladder can burst or expand so much that it squishes the rest of its insides, killing the animal before it even reaches the surface. Animals that don’t migrate vertically often don’t have a swim bladder since they don’t need it, and they’re just adapted for water pressure that’s as much as 120 times greater than pressure at the surface. This pressure difference is why blobfish look so blobby, so let’s talk about the blobfish next, Anonymous’s suggestion.

The blobfish lives on the sea floor in deep water near Australia and New Zealand. It grows about a foot long at most, or 30 cm, and is grayish with little spikes all over it. It has a gelatinous body with weak muscles and a weak skeleton, but it doesn’t need either since the intense pressure of the water presses in around the fish all the time and keeps it just the way it should be. It looks like a fish. Its gelatinous flesh is slightly less dense than the water around it, which means it can float just above the sea floor without much effort, just drifting along, giving its tail and broad fins a little flap every so often. It eats whatever detritus floats down from far above, although it’s also mostly on the lookout for small crustaceans that live on the sea floor.

The problem comes when a fishing net catches a blobfish and brings it to the surface. Suddenly there’s no nice firm water around the fish. Instead of being slightly less dense than the water around it, the blobfish is suddenly way more dense than the water, and it expands as a result. Then someone looks at this horrible dead pinkish blob that was once a happy live fish and thinks, “Gross! I’ll take a picture of that for the internet,” and that’s why the blobfish gets its name. Poor blobfish!

Fortunately, scientists have developed a compression chamber for the animals they study. When a deep-sea animal is put in the compression chamber and brought to the surface, the compression chamber keeps the water pressure where the animal needs it. The animal doesn’t die horribly, and that allows researchers to observe a live animal instead of a dead blobby one.

Next, let’s learn about Page’s suggestion, the barreleye fish. It lives in the North Pacific in deep water, and it has upward-pointing eyes that are very sensitive to light. It’s a small fish, only about six inches long, or 15 cm, and is mostly dark in color, as you would expect from a deep-sea fish. It’s chonky in shape with large fins that help it stay motionless in the water while it looks for tiny fish and jellyfish silhouetted against the water’s surface far above. Then the barreleye will move quickly to grab its prey.

It seems like there’s something I’m forgetting to tell you. Hmm. There’s something unusual about the barreleye fish, I just know it.

Oh yeah. The domed top of its head is transparent and its eyeballs are inside the dome. You can see the internal eyeballs and its brain through its transparent head, which is otherwise filled with liquid. It is really weird-looking. Its eyes are tubular, which gives it its name, and they can rotate around to focus on things or look straight ahead when it wants to. The eyes also have bright green lenses, which helps filter out the faint sunlight from above so the fish can better see the bioluminescent glow of other deep-sea animals.

It wasn’t until 2004 that researchers realized the barreleye’s eyes were covered by the transparent dome, because it’s fragile and would end up destroyed when a fish was dragged up by nets. The first photographs and video of the barreleye in its natural environment, taken by deep-sea remote vehicles, must have freaked the researchers out completely.

If you’re wondering why the barreleye has its eyeballs hidden inside a transparent dome, researchers have wondered that too. The best guess is that the dome protects the large, sensitive eyes from jellyfish stings, since barreleyes love to eat jellyfish.

Finally, Joel suggested the bristlemouth fish. The bristlemouth is a small, slender fish that generally grows no longer than a person’s finger, although one species grows up to 14 inches long, or 36 cm. Males are smaller than females. It lives throughout the world’s oceans and is black or dark brown to hide it in the twilight zone where it lives. Like the barbeled dragonfish, which by the way really likes to eat it, it migrates closer to the surface at night to find food, then goes deeper again in the daytime to hide in the darkness.

The bristlemouth gets its name from its teeth, as you may have guessed. It has a large mouth lined with lots of short, thin teeth. It mostly eats small crustaceans, especially copepods, but will also grab tiny fish and other animals. Its lower jaw is longer than its upper jaw and can open wide to grab animals larger than it is. Unlike the other fish we’ve talked about today, its eyes are small and it doesn’t use them to find prey. Instead, it uses its lateral line system, which allows it to detect tiny movements in the water. The male bristlemouth also has a good sense of smell to help it find a female. All bristlemouths start out life as male, but some males metamorphose into females as they age.

The bristlemouth also has rows of light-emitting photophores on its underside to help hide it from predators. Its photophores glow to match the amount of light shining down from far above, which means its silhouette is much harder to see by fish or other animals below it.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the bristlemouth, but we do know one thing. It’s the most abundant fish in the ocean. Literally there are more bristlemouths in the world than any other vertebrate, estimated at hundreds of trillions of them, possibly as many as a quadrillion, which is a million billion. That’s a lot of fish. There are so many that Navy sonar bounces off them and looks like a false bottom of the ocean. The United States Navy calls it the Deep Scattering Layer and wasn’t sure what was causing it, but the mystery was solved in 2010 when a research vessel with fine-mesh nets kept bringing up unbelievable numbers of the tiny fish. Specifically, the abundant ones are bristlemouth fish in the genus Cyclothone, which mostly lives in tropical areas.

The first person to see a bristlemouth in its natural habitat was William Beebe in the 1930s, during a bathysphere descent into the twilight zone, which brings us right back to where we started this episode.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way, and don’t forget to join our mailing list. There’s a link in the show notes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 230: Weird Dogs and Round Frogs



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Let’s learn about some strange dog breeds (including a mystery dog!) and what may be the cutest frog ever. Thanks to Brad and Dan for their suggestions this week, and a special thanks to Richard from NC for suggesting the Carolina dog at just the right time.

Check out Dan’s podcast, “Sure, Jan!

Further viewing:

World’s Cutest Frog – Desert Rain Frog

A talbot dog from the olden days:

The Xoloitzcuintli dog:

Norwegian lundehund hard at work:

The Norwegian lundehund has lots of toes:

DOUBLE NOSE DOGGO (Pachón Navarro):

ANOTHER DOUBLE NOSE DOGGO (Tarsus Catalburun):

The Carolina dog:

The desert rain frog, round boi:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

A few weeks ago I got to meet two listeners, Brad and Dan. We met for coffee and had a great time talking about animals and podcasting and lots of other things. Dan is a podcaster too, cohost of a great show called “Sure, Jan!” which discusses musical theater in detail with a lot of insight and humor. There’s some language not appropriate for kids, but honestly, any kid who’s so into musical theater that they’re listening to a three-part deep dive into “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” they can handle a few bad words. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to check it out.

Brad and Dan both gave me topic suggestions, so this is their episode!

We’ll start with Brad’s suggestion about strange dog breeds. We actually covered this topic a few years ago in a Patreon episode, so Patreon subscribers may recognize a lot of this information, but I’ve done some additional research and added to it.

There are a lot more dog breeds out there than most people know, many of them very rare and restricted to particular regions of the world. Often they were bred for specific purposes, sometimes purposes that no longer exist. This is the case for the turnspit dog. It was a short-legged dog that was bred to run on what was called a dog wheel. The dog wheel looked like a big hamster wheel and turned the spit, a metal rod suspended over the fire that a big piece of meat was stuck onto. The dog ran in the wheel, which turned it, which turned the cord attached to the spit, which turned the spit, which meant the meat cooked evenly instead of staying raw on one side and burning on the other. Usually a household had two turnspit dogs so one could rest while the other took a turn running in the wheel. Once better technology was invented to cook meat, the turnspit dogs were out of a job and eventually stopped being bred. They’re now an extinct breed.

Another extinct dog breed is the Talbot hound. It was a large, relatively slow and heavy hound with white or pale-colored fur, popular in Europe for hundreds of years as a hunting dog. It appears on many coats of arms. It was less of a breed than a type of dog, with many large hounds being referred to as talbots as far back as the 15th century and Talbot being a common name for a hound in the 14th century and possibly earlier. By the 17th century it was more of a standardized breed, resembling a white or light-colored bloodhound in appearance with a tail that curled upward. But by the 19th century it had gone extinct. It might have been the ancestor of the modern beagle.

Many dog breeds aren’t all that old, only dating back to roughly the early 19th century. In the Victorian era in Britain, people got really interested in recreating dog breeds from antiquity, so some breeds that people think date back to antiquity were actually developed just a few hundred years ago. But there are some breeds that genuinely have been around and more or less unchanged for a really long time.

The Xoloitzcuintli (sho-lo-eets-quint-lee) or Xolo is a rare breed of dog that was originally bred by the Aztecs and dates back more than 3,500 years. It’s a hairless dog, although many actually do have a full coat. The hairless variety has black or gray-blue skin that is susceptible to sunburn, while the coated variety has short, dense hair. Because hairlessness is genetically related to a condition where not all the teeth form, hairless Xolos usually have fewer teeth than coated Xolos. Hairless dogs need sunscreen and skin care to keep their skin healthy just like people do.

Another old dog breed is the Norwegian Lundehund. It’s a small, active dog bred specifically for hunting puffins. The breed nearly went extinct after a dog tax made it hard for people to afford keeping numerous dogs, and instead they started using nets to hunt puffins. After the puffin was declared a protected species, even the people who still kept lundehunds for hunting stopped breeding them.

By 1963 there were only six purebred lundehunds alive, five of them related to each other. As a result, despite careful breeding guidelines, modern lundehunds are extremely inbred and prone to genetic diseases. Currently a group of breeders and geneticists are working on crossbreeding the Lundehund with other Nordic breeds to retain the lundehund’s unique traits but make it healthier.

The lundehund definitely has unique traits. It has six toes on each foot, has incredibly flexible leg and neck joints, and can fold its ears shut to keep out water and dirt. All these traits helped it climb nearly vertical cliffs and caves where puffins nested. It also has a double coat to help keep it warm in cold weather. But there is good news for the lundehund: it has a job again! In 2013 the dogs started being used to find bird nests around Norwegian airports. Airports need to keep birds away from the flight paths of planes, since if they hit the plane’s windshield or get sucked into the engine’s air intake, they can cause a plane to crash. The lundehunds hunt down bird nests on the airport grounds so they can be removed before there’s a terrible accident.

While I was working on this episode, Richard from NC, who had no idea that I was researching weird dog breeds, asked if I’d heard about the Carolina dog, also known as the American dingo. I looked it up and it’s a real animal—specifically, a dog breed. But it has a strange history.

The Carolina dog is medium-sized, up to 20 inches tall at the shoulder, or 51 cm, but lightly built. Its short hair is often yellow, ginger, or pale brown in color, sometimes with white markings. It has long, slender, erect ears and a long tail. White settlers sometimes called it the Indian dog because Native Americans kept it as a pet or hunting dog, but there were also plenty of feral Carolina dogs living in the wild in the eastern United States.

Archaeological excavations done in the late 19th century found lots of dog remains buried with people. Several archaeologists noted that the dog’s jaw was slightly different from other dog breeds, lacking one pair of teeth. They suggested that the so-called Indian dogs were descended from the earliest domesticated dogs in Asia and migrated into North America when humans did in the Pleistocene.

This was the accepted theory until 2013, when genetic testing was finally done on the breed. Later genetic studies have also been carried out. The studies all conclude that although the Carolina dog has interbred with modern dog breeds, it does have genetic markers that indicate some of its ancestors are from East Asia. It’s more complicated than it sounds, though. A 2018 genetic study compared fossils from ancient North American dogs with the living Carolina dogs and didn’t find much of a match. The fossil dogs migrated from Siberia and were isolated in North America for 9,000 years. Then their unique genetic signature vanished, with the exception of some Arctic dog breeds, as Eurasian dogs brought to North America from Europe took over. Some Carolina dogs do contain that unique genetic signature, but there’s no way to tell if it’s from ancient ancestors or more recent cross-breeding with Arctic breeds.

What is definitely true is that the Carolina dog shares a lot of physical traits with other feral dog populations from around the world. Basically, if dogs are allowed to live and breed without human help or interference, the result is a dog that looks a lot like the Carolina dog of North America, or the pariah dog of Asia, or the dingo of Australia.

But let’s talk now about dogs with double noses, such as the Pachón Navarro, a Spanish hunting dog that sometimes has a double nose, also called a split nose. That doesn’t mean it has two snouts or four nostrils, but that each nostril has its own nose pad separated by a strip of skin and fur, with a groove running down the middle of the snout.

The Pachón Navarro almost went extinct as a breed. A breeding program got underway in the 1970s but it’s still a rare breed. It’s a pointer hound bred since at least the 15th century in the Pyrenees Mountains, and it has short hair that’s white with brown or orange markings, especially on the ears and over the eyes. Not all dogs of this breed have the double nose, and some modern breeders try not to breed for it since the double nose trait is linked to a cleft palate that can cause other health issues.

The double-nosed trait is only seen in one other dog population. The Tarsus Catalburun [chatal-burrun], or Turkish pointer, may be a descendant of Spanish dogs favored by Turkish nobility, or it may be the dog that gave rise to the Pachón Navarro breed. Most historians think the breed was probably developed in the 19th century from European dogs since there has never been a tradition of hunting with pointers in the area. It’s really rare outside of Turkey and rare inside of Turkey, with a population of only a few hundred dogs that are somewhat inbred. They’re mostly kept by partridge hunters.

There is a mystery associated with double-nosed dogs. The Andean tiger hound is a third variety of double-nosed dog that’s supposed to live in Bolivia, South America. It’s supposedly descended from dogs brought to the Americas by Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century.

But does the Andean tiger hound really even exist? In 1913, explorer Lt.-Col Percy Fawcett reported seeing double-nosed dogs in the Amazon jungle. In a book Fawcett’s son compiled from his field notes and published in 1953, he reports,

“Here we saw for the first and only time a breed of dog known as the double-nosed Andean tiger hound. The two noses are as cleanly divided as though cut with a knife. About the size of a pointer, it is highly valued for its acute sense of smell and ingenuity in hunting jaguars. It is found only on these plains.”

But no one else who visited Bolivia ever reported seeing any of these dogs—until 2005 when another explorer, Colonel John Blashford-Snell, saw a double-nosed dog in a remote village. The dog was named Bella and her owner reported that she was a member of an extremely rare breed found only in Bolivia.

The following year Blashford-Snell returned to the village. Unfortunately Bella had died in the meantime, but she had had a puppy, named Xingu, who also had a double nose. While Blashford-Snell was in the area with a team of scientists investigating a 30,000 year old meteor crater, Xingu had a litter of puppies with a single-nosed dog and two of the four puppies had double noses.

It’s possible that the Andean tiger hound is a rare dog breed still hanging on in remote areas of Bolivia, a descendant of Spanish dogs. Then again, it might just be a trait that crops up occasionally in the local dogs, either due to Spanish double-nosed dogs in the ancestry or a similar genetic anomaly that developed independently. The trait occurs in other breeds occasionally, especially in wolfhounds and bullmastiffs.

All the dogs we’ve talked about are good. They’re good dogs, Brad.

Next, Dan wanted to hear about the desert rain frog. I know we’ve talked about it before at some point, but only briefly and I can’t even find which episode. So all this information is new to me too.

The desert rain frog only grows about two and a half inches long, or 6 cm. It’s not your average hopping frog that sits on a lily pad and goes ribbit and maybe plays a tiny banjo. Instead, it’s a round boi with short little thin legs that it uses to dig burrows in the sand where it lives. Which is a desert. It’s a rain frog that lives in a desert. Also, it makes this sound:

[desert rain frog sound]

The desert in question is a 6-mile-wide strip of land, or 10 km, along the southwestern coast of Africa, right at the border of Namibia and South Africa. Yes, it’s a desert along the ocean. It’s actually a specific habitat called a coastal desert. The frog lives in a small part of the Namib coastal desert, which is probably the world’s oldest desert—possibly as much as 80 million years old. Parts of it have stupendously huge sand dunes, up to 980 feet tall, or 300 meters, and 20 miles long, or 32 km.

Because it’s an amphibian, the desert rain frog has to keep its skin moist. This can be difficult to do in a desert. It digs its burrow deep enough to find moist sand to rest on, and it absorbs the moisture through its skin. Coastal deserts also receive some moisture in the form of sea fog. This helps plants to grow on the dunes, which means animals like antelopes come to eat the plants, which is important because their dung attracts the insects the frogs eat.

The female desert rain frog lays her eggs in her burrow on damp sand. The eggs hatch into tiny froglets instead of tadpoles.

The frog’s legs are too short to allow it to hop, but it has webbed toes that help it walk on loose sand. It’s nocturnal and spends the day in its burrow, but at night it comes out to walk around and catch insects. It will also emerge during the day when there’s a lot of fog. It mostly eats beetles and moths that are attracted to animal dung and it probably also eats the eggs those insects lay in the dung and the larvae that hatch out of the eggs. Because its skin is moist, sand sticks to it and helps camouflage the frog while it’s aboveground.

I need to stress how round this frog is, because I don’t think I have made it clear. It’s very round, generally described as spherical. It’s a little bigger than a ping-pong ball but it resembles a ping-pong ball that’s stuck all over with sand and has round golden eyes and a frowny little mouth and absurdly short legs. It may actually be the cutest frog, and that is a ferociously competitive title.

Unfortunately, because the desert rain frog lives in such a small, specific habitat, it’s endangered due to habitat loss and pollution. Strip mining for diamonds is common in the area and people have also started building roads and grazing livestock along parts of the coastal desert. Hopefully the desert rain frog and its habitat can be protected before it’s too late.

Let’s listen to this little frog again. This is the sound a desert rain frog makes when it feels threatened, actually. There’s a link in the show notes to the iconic video taken by wildlife photographer Dean Boshoff, which is where I got the audio, and when you watch it you can see that the frog is actually backing away. It’s okay, little frog. Everyone loves you.

[frog buzzy sound]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way, and don’t forget to join our mailing list. There’s a link in the show notes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 229: Blue Ghosts and Vanishing Sharks



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I got to meet some listeners this week to see the synchronous fireflies, so thanks to Shannon, Diana, Derek, and Autumn for hanging out with me! This week we’ll learn about a different kind of lightning bug as well as a shark mystery!

Derek’s photography, Enchanting Ectotherms

Further reading:

A shark mystery millions of years in the making

I suspect this is a doctored image but it’s gorgeous so here it is anyway, supposedly some blue ghost fireflies:

This is a real photo, no photoshop, taken by Derek Wheaton during our trip. The long line of light in the middle is a blue ghost moving with its light on during a long exposure:

A synchronous firefly on Derek’s hand (photo by Derek Wheaton):

A tiny blue ghost firefly on Derek’s hand (photo by Derek Wheaton):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. It’s been an amazing week for me because I got to take some people to see our local synchronous fireflies! The fireflies put on a brilliant show for us and the weather was perfect, and it was so much fun to meet Shannon and Diana! Then, two nights later, I also took Derek and Autumn out to see the fireflies. In between, I started research on the blue ghost firefly, since I had originally thought it was just another name for the synchronous firefly, but it’s not. So this week we’re going to learn about the blue ghost firefly, along with some interesting breaking news about a shark mystery.

The blue ghost firefly only lives in parts of the eastern and central United States. In most places it’s rare, but like the synchronous fireflies that all flash together, the blue ghost fireflies are actually pretty common in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The reason why people don’t see them more often is that these days, most people don’t spend much time in the woods at night.

Like other fireflies, the blue ghost lives in forests with deep leaf litter where there’s a lot of moisture in the ground. The female lays her eggs in the leaf litter and when the eggs hatch, the larval fireflies eat tiny insects and other invertebrates like snails.

The blue ghost firefly is different from other firefly species in several ways. First, it doesn’t flash. The male stays lighted up for around a minute at a time while he flies low over the ground watching for a female to light up too. Its glow also appears bluish-white to human eyes, at least in the distance and when it’s really dark out. Up close, it looks yellow-green like other firefly lights. Researchers think it only looks blue because of the way human eyes perceive color in low light.

In the daytime, blue ghost fireflies don’t look like much. They’re small, around 7 mm long, and males are all brown. The females don’t have wings, and in fact they never metamorphose into the adult form and still look like larvae as adults. The female crawls to the end of a twig or blade of grass and glows to attract a mate.

When I was doing my research to learn about blue ghost fireflies, I kept seeing articles comparing its size to a grain of rice. I looked up the average size of a grain of rice, and that’s where I got 7 mm. I didn’t think too much about it.

When Shannon, Diana, and I were watching the synchronous fireflies, we noticed some fireflies that didn’t flash, just stayed glowing while they drifted along low over the forest floor. After I started researching blue ghost fireflies, I realized that was what had seen! So I was especially excited to go back out with Derek and Autumn and confirm it.

Derek works for a nonprofit that breeds endangered fish for conservation projects, which is awesome, but he’s also a photographer, so he brought his camera to try and get pictures and video of the fireflies. His photographs are amazing so if you want to see them I’ve linked to his Facebook page, EnchantingEctotherms, in the show notes. He does a lot of snorkeling so a lot of the animals he photographs are fish or other water animals like turtles and snakes, and he gives information about them in his posts.

Anyway, he wanted to get close-up pictures of a synchronous firefly and a blue ghost firefly, so we all spent some time trying to catch one of each—gently, of course, and without leaving the trail. We didn’t want to hurt ourselves in the dark or disturb the fireflies’ habitat. Derek caught a synchronous firefly first, and it looks like an ordinary firefly that I’m used to, the common eastern firefly, which grows to about 14 mm long. That’s half an inch long. Then, eventually, he also caught a blue ghost. It was so small that at first we thought he might have caught some other beetle by accident, until we looked more closely and saw the telltale head shape of a lightning bug. I took a photo myself and put it in the show notes so you can see just how small it is.

From my own observation, the blue ghosts are much dimmer than other fireflies, which makes sense since they’re so much smaller. The light does look faintly blue-white in the distance, but when it’s closer to you it looks like an ordinary firefly’s light. They do indeed fly very low to the ground while lit up, but they’re also cautious. We had trouble catching one because when we got too close, the firefly would fly down to the ground and put his light out.

Naturally, after photographing our lightning bugs we let them go again. I’m happy to report that the synchronous fireflies have expanded their range a lot since I first stumbled across them about ten years ago, and the blue ghosts seem reasonably common too. They live in a protected area of our local watershed so they’ll be safe and sound forever, hopefully.

This is good, because blue ghosts in particular are vulnerable to habitat loss. Since the female can’t fly, she can’t travel far to lay her eggs. During mating season, some state and national parks in the southern Appalachians close some trails to protect the blue ghost and other fireflies, especially from light pollution from flashlights.

The synchronous fireflies and blue ghosts are only active for a few weeks in June, which is their mating season. We’ll probably be just about at the end of this year’s display by the time you hear this, but if you’re going to be in East Tennessee and want to go out and see them with me next summer, just let me know. As we talked about in episode 180, they only live a few minutes’ walk away from a small parking lot but no one but me seems to know about them.

Next, let’s learn about a shark mystery that’s 19 million years old but that scientists only learned about recently. This month, June of 2021, a team of researchers published results of a shark study in the journal Science. The team had decided to graph the number and diversity of shark species known from the fossil record so they’d have a baseline to compare modern shark diversity to. But they discovered something really surprising.

Nineteen million years ago, there were over ten times as many sharks in the oceans as there are today. They were an important part of the ocean’s ecosystems, especially in the open ocean. And then…they disappear from the fossil record. Over 90% of the world’s sharks died, with shark diversity decreasing by more than 70%. Not only that, sharks never fully recovered from whatever happened.

So what did happen? We don’t know yet. There was a small extinction event called the Middle Miocene extinction peak five million years after the sharks vanished, which researchers think was due to global cooling leading to climate change. The cooling period was caused by a lot of factors, but a big cause was changes in ocean currents and air currents as the continents moved into new positions. Before that, though, the world was comfortably warm for millions of years and the shark population was overall quite stable. Researchers have found no reason why sharks suddenly started dying in such huge numbers, especially in the open ocean instead of in coastal waters.

The leader of the study, Elizabeth Sibert, says that there might have been a climate event of some kind that was disastrous to sharks but that was over relatively quickly, leaving very little evidence behind except for the fossil remains of way more sharks than usual and a lack of sharks afterwards.

Other scientific teams have already started studying the open ocean ecosystem from 19 million years ago and earlier for clues as to what happened, whether other animals were affected, and why sharks never regained their supremacy in the world’s oceans afterwards. That’s how science works: someone makes a discovery and that inspires lots of new studies, which lead to more discoveries. When we do learn more about the great shark die-off of the Miocene, I will keep you posted.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way, and don’t forget to join our mailing list. There’s a link in the show notes.

Thanks for listening!

 


Episode 228: Monkey Lizards and Weird Turtle…Things



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We have a merch store now too!

Thanks to Ethan for this week’s topic, two weird animals that developed after the Great Dying we talked about last week!

Further reading:

Monkey Lizards of the Triassic

Placodonts: The Bizarre ‘Walrus-Turtles’ of the Triassic

Drepanosaurus (without a head since we haven’t found a skull yet, but with that massive front claw):

Drepanosaurus’s tail claw:

Hypuronector had a leaf-like tail:

Placodus was a big round-bodied swimmer:

Some placodonts [art by Darren Naish, found at the second article linked above]:

Henodus was the oddball placodont that probably ate plant material:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

 

Last week we talked about the end-Permian mass extinction, also called the Great Dying. This week let’s follow up with a couple of weird and interesting animals that evolved once things got back to normal on Earth. Thanks to Ethan who suggested both animals.

 

The great dying marks the end of the Permian and the beginning of the Triassic period, which lasted from about 251 million years ago to 201 million years ago. In those 50 million years, life rebounded rapidly and many animals evolved that we’re familiar with today. But some animals from the Triassic are ones you’ve probably never heard of.

 

We’ll start with a reptile called the drepanosaur. Drepranosaurs are also sometimes called monkey lizards for reasons that will soon become clear. Paleontologists only discovered the first drepanosaur in 1980, Drepanosaurus, and within a few years they recognized a whole new family, Drepanosauridae, to fit that first discovery and subsequent closely related specimens. Drepanosaurs were weird little reptiles that probably looked like lizards in many ways, although they weren’t lizards.

 

How weird was Drepanosaurus? Very weird. Very, very weird.

 

It was obviously a climbing animal that probably spent all of its life in the treetops. It had lots of adaptations to life in trees, such as hind feet where all the toes pointed in the same direction and were somewhat curved, sort of like a spider monkey’s hand. That would help it get a good grip on branches. But those hind feet aren’t why it’s called the monkey lizard.

 

Drepanosaurus and its relatives are called monkey lizards because of their tails. Many monkeys have prehensile tails, which act as a fifth limb and help keep the monkey stable in a tree by curling around branches and hanging on. Drepanosaurus had something similar. Instead of being mobile from side to side like most reptile tails, Drepanosaurus’s tail could mostly only curve downward. Modern chameleons have an even more pronounced downward-curving tail that helps them climb. But the chameleon’s tail is still just a tail. The end of Drepanosaurus’s tail had several modified caudal bones that were probably exposed through the skin. Those modified bones acted as a claw to help the animal grab onto tree trunks and branches. So Drepanosaurus had claws on its front feet, claws on its hind feet, and a claw on its tail. It’s sort of like having five feet.

 

As if that wasn’t weird enough, let’s talk about those claws on the front feet. It had five toes on each foot, and four of them had ordinary claws. They were sharp but fairly small, about what you’d expect from an animal that grew about 19 inches long at most, or 50 cm. But the second toe on each foot, which corresponds to the pointer finger on a human hand, had a much bigger claw. MUCH BIGGER CLAW. It was as big as its whole hand! Most researchers think it used the claw to dig into rotting wood, insect nests, and bark to find insects and other small animals to eat.

 

But that’s not all. Drepanosaurus also had a structure called a supraneural bone at the base of its neck, made up of fused vertebrae, that would have made it look like it had a little hunch on its shoulders. While we don’t have a skull of Drepanosaurus, since we only have three specimens so far, this structure is also present in other drepanosaur species where we do have the neck and head, and they all have fairly long, slender necks and birdlike skulls with large eyes. It’s possible that the supraneural bone was the attachment site for special muscles that helped Drepanosaurus extend its neck very quickly to grab insects and other small animals.

 

Drepanosaurs in general shared many of the traits seen in Drepanosaurus, although with some differences. Many drepanosaurs had opposing toes on the feet that would help them grasp branches and twigs more securely. Most don’t have the giant claw on the front feet although most do have the tail claw. But one monkey lizard doesn’t live up to its name at all.

 

A little drepanosaur called Hypuronector limnaios, which only grew about five inches long, or 12 cm, had a much different tail from its relations. Its tail didn’t curve downward at all—in fact, it stuck up behind it and was probably not very flexible. Not only was the tail longer than the body and head together, it had long points growing down from the vertebrae, called haemal arches, which made the tail extremely large top to bottom but flattened from side to side.

 

In other words, its tail looked like a leaf. The drepanosaur could cling to a branch with its tail sticking up, and any nearby predators would probably think it was just another leaf growing from the branch, especially if the tail was covered in green skin. Some researchers speculate that it could have used its tail as a sail to glide from branch to branch too, or it might have acted as a parachute if it had to jump from a branch to escape a predator. Hypuronector’s front legs were longer than its hind legs, unlike other drepanosaurs, which suggests it might have had a flap of skin that helped it glide.

 

Drepanosaur fossils have been found in parts of the United States and western Europe, but were probably more widespread than that. We still don’t know a whole lot about them, so every new specimen that’s found can give paleontologists lots of new information. Most drepanosaurs resembled weird chameleons with birdlike heads, but they weren’t related to birds or chameleons. We don’t actually know what they were closely related to.

 

Ethan also suggested placodonts, another reptile that evolved in the Triassic. Don’t confuse them with placoderms, the armored fish that went extinct in the great dying. The “placo” part of both words means tablet or plate. Therefore, placoderms have skin—that’s the “derm” part—covered in plates, while placodonts have flattened teeth, because the “dont” part refers to teeth. That’s why you get braces on your teeth at the orthodontist but you go to the dermatologist for skin problems.

 

What did placodonts do with their flattened teeth? They used them to crush the shells of shellfish and crustaceans. From that you can infer that they were marine reptiles, and you would be right. The earlier species had big round bodies with heavy bones, which helped them dive to the ocean floor to find food. They lived in shallow coastal waters and had large flattened ribs that helped protect them from injury if currents pushed them into rocks. While the teeth in the back of the mouth were flattened to crush shells, the teeth in the very front of the mouth were sharp and pointed forward to grab prey.

 

One of the most common early placodonts was Placodus [PLAK-oh-dus], which grew nearly six and a half feet long, or 2 meters. Its long tail was flattened laterally to help it swim and it probably had webbed toes. Since its legs were small and relatively weak considering how heavy its body was, it probably couldn’t get around very well on land, so it would have stayed close to the water. It probably looked kind of like the modern marine iguana, which we talked about in episode 92, but with longer jaws. On the other hand, unlike the marine iguana, placodus had a third eye.

 

THIRD EYE ALERT! If you remember way back in episode 3, where we talked about the tuatara, we learned a little bit about the parietal eye, or third eye. Parietal eyes are found on the top of a few animals’ heads, including the tuatara, but they aren’t the same as ordinary eyes. They’re very small photoreceptive eyes that can only sense light and dark. In Placodus’s case, researchers think that ability helped it figure out which way was up more easily when it was underwater. If you’ve ever been knocked down by a wave you’ll understand how easy it is to get disoriented underwater.

 

Placodus and other early placodonts had a ridge of bony scutes on the back to help protect it from predators. In later placodonts those scutes were bigger and bigger until they were more like armor, which added weight to the body and meant that the bones didn’t have to be so dense. This meant that instead of having barrel-like bodies, later placodonts were a little more streamlined. Their bodies were more flattened than round, but still broad across with big plates protecting the back. Their legs were more like flippers.

 

Does this make you think of something? Something like a sea turtle?

 

Later placodonts looked a lot like turtles, a classic case of convergent evolution because they weren’t related to turtles at all. If you saw Placochelys, for instance, you’d probably just think it was a weird sea turtle, unless you got a really close look at it. It grew about three feet long, or 90 cm, with a triangular head, a knobby shell, and flippers with clawed toes at the ends. It had a beak like a turtle’s instead of Placodus’s forward-pointing teeth, but unlike a turtle it also had teeth in the back of the mouth. These were still big flat teeth used for crushing shellfish, but like other placodonts the upper teeth grew from the palate, or the roof of the mouth.

 

Other placodonts would have looked strange to us, like Psephoderma. It grew up to six feet long, or 180 cm, and instead of a single turtle shell, it had two shells. One covered its body from the back of the head down to the pelvis. The other covered its pelvis and was smaller. It had a long tail and a pointy nose.

 

At least one placodont didn’t live in the ocean and didn’t eat shellfish and crustaceans. Henodus grew about three feet long, or one meter, and lived in brackish water or possibly freshwater. Its shell was twice as broad as it was long. It also had a lower shell, or plastron, on its belly. Its nose was short and squared-off and it had a turtle-like beak, and instead of teeth it had denticles on the sides of its jaws. Some researchers think it was a filter feeder, filtering tiny animals from the water through the denticles, while other researchers think it may have eaten water plants. It might have done both.

 

There’s a lot we don’t know about placodonts. We don’t know if they laid eggs or gave birth to live young, and we don’t know what exactly they ate. Obviously their teeth were best suited to crushing shells, but we don’t actually know what kind of shellfish they preferred or if they only ate crustaceans or something else. Placodont remains have been found in Europe, the Middle East, and China, but they were probably more widespread than that. During the Triassic, as the supercontinent Pangaea broke up, it created lots of shallow oceans and island chains that would have been ideal for placodonts.

 

Unfortunately for the placodonts, as the landmasses moved farther apart over millions of years, the shallow seas became deeper. Populations would have become isolated from each other. Eventually placodonts went extinct, probably by a combination of habitat loss and competition from other animals as dinosaurs and their relatives spread throughout the world.

 

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way, and don’t forget to join our mailing list. There’s a link in the show notes.

 

Thanks for listening!


Episode 227: The Great Dying



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It’s another extinction event episode! This one’s about the end-Permian AKA the Permian-Triassic AKA the GREAT DYING.

Further Reading:

Ancient mini-sharks lived longer than thought

Lystrosaurus’s fossilized skeleton:

Lystrosaurus may have looked something like this but I hope not:

This artist’s rendition of lystrosaurus looks a little less horrific but it might not be any more accurate:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s time for our next extinction event episode, and this week it’s the big one. Not the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs, but one you may not have heard of, one that almost destroyed all life on earth. I mean, obviously it didn’t and things are fine now, but it was touch and go there for a while. It’s the Permian-Triassic extinction event, or end-Permian, which took place just over 250 million years ago. It was so bad that scientists who aren’t given to hyperbole refer to it as the Great Dying.

Don’t worry, we won’t talk about extinction the whole time. We’ll also learn about some interesting animals that survived the extinction event and did just fine afterwards.

We have a better idea of what happened at the end of the Permian than we have about the earlier extinction events we talked about in episodes 205 and 214. Right about 252 million years ago, something caused a massive volcanic eruptive event in what is now Siberia. Some researchers speculate that the cause of the volcanic eruptions may have been a huge asteroid impact on the other side of the Earth, which was so powerful that it caused magma to move away from the impact like water sloshing in a jostled glass. The magma rose up toward the earth’s crust and eventually through it onto the surface.

The result was probably the largest volcanic event in the last half-billion years and it continued for an estimated two million years. Most of the eruptions were probably pretty low-key, just runny lava pouring out of vents in the ground, but there was just so much of it. Lava covered almost a million square miles of land, or 2.6 million square km. Ash and toxic gases from some eruptions also ended up high in the atmosphere, but one big problem was that the lava poured through sediments full of organic material in the process of turning into coal. Lava, of course, is molten rock and it’s incredibly hot. It’s certainly hot enough to burn a bunch of young coal beds, which added more ash and toxic gases to the air—so much ash that shallow water throughout the entire world became choked with ash.

The carbon dioxide released by all that burning coal caused severe ocean acidification and ocean anoxia—a lack of oxygen in the water. But it gets worse! A lot of lava erupted into the ocean right at the continental shelf, where the shallow coastal water becomes much deeper. This is exactly the place where you find methane deposits in the sediments on the ocean floor. When those deposits were suddenly disturbed by lava flowing into them, all the methane in the formerly tranquil depths was released and bubbled to the surface. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, meaning that if a whole lot of it ends up in the atmosphere in a short amount of time, it can cause rapid global warming—much faster than that caused by carbon dioxide. This global warming would have happened after a period of global cooling due to reduced sunlight reaching the earth through ash clouds, which lasted long enough and was severe enough that sea levels dropped as glaciers formed. Then everything heated way, way up. The ice caps melted, which may have led to a stagnation of ocean currents. This in turn would have contributed to the water’s anoxicity and toxicity. The average temperature of the ocean would have increased by almost 15 degrees Fahrenheit, or 8 degrees Celsius. Atmospheric warming may have been as much as 68 degrees Fahrenheit in places, or 20 degrees Celsius. That’s not the average temperature of the world, that’s the temperature increase.

So, basically, everything was terrible and it happened very quickly in geologic terms. A 2018 study found that everything looked pretty much fine for the 30,000 years leading up to the great dying. Some researchers even think the initial extinction event might have taken place over just a few centuries.

Marine animals were affected the most, especially marine invertebrates. Trilobites and placoderms went extinct, eurypterids went extinct, and corals went extinct until about 14 million years later when modern corals developed. Some researchers estimate that 95% of all marine species went extinct.

Things were better on land, but not that much better. At the end of the Permian, life was good on land and it was especially good for insects because of the high percentage of oxygen in the air and the variety of plant life in huge swamps around the supercontinent Pangaea. The largest insects that ever lived were buzzing around in the Permian. This included an order of insects called Meganisoptera, or griffinflies. Griffinflies looked like dragonflies and may be related to them. Some species had a wingspan 28 inches across, or 71 cm. The arthropod Anthopleura, sometimes called the giant millipede, lived in the Permian too. Some species grew six feet long, or 2.5 meters, and were about 18 inches wide, or 45 cm. It looked like a millipede but had even more legs. It probably looked scary, but it only ate plants as far as we know.

Instead of actively breathing the way most vertebrates do, most invertebrates use a passive system to absorb oxygen from the air. This is great when there’s a lot of oxygen. When the level of oxygen drops, though, the largest species can’t absorb enough oxygen to function and die out rapidly. That’s one reason why you don’t have to worry about spiders the size of bears. So all the large invertebrates and a lot of the smaller ones went extinct as oxygen was replaced with carbon dioxide, methane, and other toxic gases in the atmosphere.

The acid rain caused by toxic gases and the reduced sunlight caused by ash in the atmosphere also killed off plants. Forests died, so that the fossil record during and after the extinction event contains massive amounts of fungal spores from fungi that decompose trees. Some researchers think all of the world’s trees died. Forests disappeared for some four million years. Since trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen, the lack of trees made oxygen levels drop even more.

Animals that depended on forests to survive also went extinct, including about two-thirds of all amphibians, reptiles, and therapsids. Therapsids were proto-mammals and it’s a good thing they didn’t all die out because they eventually gave rise to mammals.

Everything I’ve described sounds so incredibly bad, you may be wondering how anything survived. One stroke of luck was probably the size of Pangaea. That was the supercontinent made up of most of the world’s landmasses all smushed together. Before the extinction event, the middle of Pangaea was probably pretty dry with swampier climates around the edges. After the extinction event, the interior of the supercontinent was the safest place to be.

One of the most common land animals after the extinction event was a herbivore called Lystrosaurus. Lystrosaurus was a therapsid, and it was nothing exciting to look at unless you were also a lystrosaurus. Some species were the size of a cat while some were much larger, up to 8 feet long, or 2.5 m. It had a short snout, a short tail, and a semi-sprawling gait. A lizard walks with its legs stuck out to the sides, while a dog or cat or pig walks with its legs underneath its body. Lystrosaurus was somewhere between the two.

It probably lived in burrows that it dug with its strong front legs. While it had a pair of tusks that grew down from the upper jaw, those were its only teeth. Instead it probably had a turtle-like beak that helped it bite off pieces of vegetation.

Lystrosaurus lived in the central part of Pangaea, in what is now Asia, Antarctica, South Africa, and eastern Europe back when all those areas were all scrunched up close together. It survived the extinction event and expanded its range, and for millions of years it was almost the only big land animal in the world. It had almost no predators because they’d all gone extinct, and it had very few competitors for food because they’d all gone extinct. Lystrosaurus made up 90% of all land vertebrates for millions of years.

How did it survive when so many other animals died out? There are several theories, but the most important factor was probably its lack of specialization. It could survive on any kind of plant instead of needing to feed on specific species of plant. There’s also evidence that it could enter a torpor similar to hibernation where its metabolism slowed way down. This would have been a literal lifesaver during the time when the air and water were toxic and very little plant life survived. Lystrosaurus could hunker down in its burrow for long stretches of time, then come out and find enough food and water to keep it going for another stretch of torpor.

Just imagine the world back then, after the initial extinction event but before the world had recovered—say, a million years after the volcanic activity stopped. Picture a series of gentle rolling hills dotted with grazing animals. It’s peaceful and very open because there are no trees. Grass hasn’t evolved yet so the ground is covered in fern-like plants from the genus Dicroidium, which lives in dry conditions. As you look closer with your mind’s eye, you realize that every single one of those grazing animals—thousands of them visible in every direction—are the same kind of animal that looks sort of like a fuzzy pig with a stumpy lizard tail, clawed feet, and a turtle’s beak. Lystrosaurus, living the good life.

In the ocean, the situation was similar. The shallows were toxic waste dumps of ash where the water had so little oxygen that nothing could survive. But the deeper ocean was still livable for some animals.

For a long time, scientists thought a group of early sharks called cladodontomorphs had gone extinct during the great dying. Their distinctive teeth had been common in the fossil record, but after the extinction event they disappeared. Cladodontomorphs only grew about a foot long at most, or 30 cm, and may have had a weird-shaped dorsal fin that pointed forward. They lived in shallow coastal waters. You know, the worst possible place to be 252 million years ago.

Then palaeontologists found some of those teeth in rocks that were in much deeper water 135 million years ago. It turns out the little sharks had survived the extinction event by moving into the open ocean where conditions were better. And they didn’t just survive, they lasted for another 120 million years.

So let’s break it down. It was probably four million years before trees developed again from different plants. It was some 14 million years before coral reefs could rebuild as modern corals developed after their cousins went extinct. It took 30 million years for terrestrial vertebrates to recover from the great dying and 50 million years for all the ocean’s ecosystems to fully recover. That’s a colossally long time. But it did recover.

So what animals arose once the recovery was well underway? Icthyosaurs. Archosaurs, which eventually evolved into pterosaurs, crocodilians, dinosaurs, and birds. And therapsids that eventually gave rise to modern mammals.

I don’t usually tease the following week’s show, but next week we’re going to learn about some weird and interesting animals that developed in the early to mid Triassic, after the extinction event was over and life started evolving in new directions. As I’ve said in the previous extinction event episodes: no matter how bad things get, there’s always going to be some little animal stumping along out of the carnage to get on with the business of surviving and thriving.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 226: Brood X Cicadas



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It’s the 2021 brood of 17-year cicadas! Thanks to Enzo (and several others) who suggested it!

Further listening:

Varmints! Podcast – “Cicadas”

Our local Brood X cicada (photo by me!):

The holes that cicadas emerged from (photo also by me):

Discarded cicada shells. My work keys and Homestar Runner keychain for scale:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to talk about cicadas, specifically the 17-year cicadas that you may have heard about in the news or in your own back yard, depending on where you live. Thanks to the several people who suggested the topic on Twitter, with special thanks to Enzo who emailed me about it.

I actually wasn’t going to do a cicadas episode because we already talked about cicadas way back in episode 28. We didn’t go into too much detail in that one, but Varmints! podcast did a great in-depth show about cicadas recently so I’ve been referring people to them, and check the show notes for a link if you don’t already listen to Varmints. Besides, I hadn’t heard any of the cicadas myself so I didn’t see what the big deal was.

Then I returned to work after taking some time off to take care of my cat Poe, who by the way is doing really well now and thanks for all the well wishes! The second I got out of my car, I heard them. The cicadas. Now, we get cicadas every year where I live in East Tennessee, so the sound is familiar to me and I actually like it. I find it soothing and the quintessential sound of summer. But this was something else. At only 8am the trees along the edge of campus were filled with what I can only describe as a high-pitched roar.

I went out at lunch and the sound was even louder. I got some audio, so here’s what a whole bunch of cicadas sound like when they’re calling at once.

[cicada sounds]

I also got pictures, which you can see in the show notes.

The cicadas emerging in such numbers this year are 17-year cicadas. They spend almost all of those 17 years as nymphs underground, where they eat sap from the roots of trees and other plants. At the end of the 17 years, when the soil is warm enough, they emerge from the ground and molt into their final form, the full-grown adult cicada!

The adult cicadas have wings but aren’t very good fliers. I can definitely attest to that because when I was taking pictures of them, I kept having to dodge as cicadas flew from bush to tree and either didn’t see me standing there or thought I was a weird tree or maybe just couldn’t maneuver well enough to avoid me. They’re pretty big insects, up to two inches long, or five cm, with gray or black bodies and orangey-red legs and eyes. The wings have pale orange veins.

The first cicadas to emerge are mostly males, in such numbers that predators get too full to care when the females emerge a few days later. That way more females survive to lay eggs. At first the cicadas that emerge still look like nymphs, but within about an hour they molt their exoskeleton and emerge as full adults with wings. They’re pale in color until the new exoskeleton hardens and the wings expand to full size, which takes a few days.

This, of course, leaves behind a cicada shell, which is the shed exoskeleton. When I was very small, I was terrified of cicada shells even though they’re just empty and perfectly harmless. They look scary because of those big pointy legs and big round eyes. You can frequently find cicada shells still stuck to tree bark, and it’s okay to pick them up and collect them if you like. The cicada doesn’t need it anymore. You can see the slit along the back of the shell where the cicada climbed out.

The emerged cicadas climb or fly into trees where the males start singing. Males produce their loud songs with a structure called a tymbal organ in their abdomen. The abdomen is mostly hollow, which helps amplify the rapid clicking of a pair of circular membranes. The clicking is so fast, up to 480 times a second, that humans hear it as a continuous buzzing noise and not individual clicks. Some cicada songs are louder than 120 decibels, which is the same decibel level as a chainsaw.

A reminder: this is what they sound like:

[more cicada sounds]

A female finds a male by listening to his song. After a pair mates, the female makes little cuts in twigs at the end of a tree branch, usually new-growth twigs because they’re softer. She lays her eggs in the cuts, then soon dies and falls to the ground.

Within a few weeks, all the adult cicadas have died. But around eight weeks later, the eggs hatch. The new nymphs are teensy, only a few millimeters long. They drop to the ground and burrow into the soil up to a foot deep, or 30 cm. There they stay for the next 17 years, growing larger very slowly until it’s time to emerge.

The current big group of cicadas consists of three species that look very similar. It’s called brood ten although I agree with Varmints who think it should be brood X because the Roman numeral ten is an X and every time I see it, I read it as Brood X. There are plenty of other cicadas, though, including some that emerge every 13 years instead of 17 years, and some that emerge every year or every few years.

Cicadas have been around for some 4 million years and most species live in tropical areas. Brood X is only found in the middle to northern areas of the eastern United States. It used to be even more widespread, but habitat loss has reduced its range considerably. Every time a forest is bulldozed to build a lot of houses, the nymphs underground either die outright or emerge later to find no trees to protect them and their eggs. Brood eleven went extinct in the 1950s, so even though there are millions of cicadas now, there may come a summer when no Brood X nymphs survive to emerge 17 years later.

The sudden emergence of thousands upon thousands of big loud insects in a short amount of time can be alarming, but cicadas are completely harmless to people, pets and other animals, and plants. They don’t eat as adults and they only make noise for a few weeks. They also don’t live everywhere. Even on the college campus where I work, the cicadas are only present in certain places. On the edge of the parking lot they’re everywhere. If I walk down to the far end of the duck pond, nothing. So if you happen to have Brood X cicadas in your yard or on your street, just remind yourself that that makes your home special and they’ll all shut up soon.

Of course, depending on where you live, in three years the enormous brood 19, called the great southern brood, will emerge throughout the southeastern United States, along with the smaller but just as loud brood 8, called the Northern Illinois Brood. But that gives you three years to buy a good pair of earplugs.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 225: Talking Animals



Talking animals! It’s not what you’re thinking about. No parrots here, just mammals.

Our new logo is by Susanna King of Flourish Media! If you’d like to JOIN OUR MAILING LIST!, I’ll be sending out a discount code soon for merch with our logo on it–but only for people on the mailing list (and patrons).

Further listening:

The MonsterTalk episode about Gef the Talking Mongoose (this episode has no swearing that I recall but some other episodes may have a little bit of salty language)

Mongolian Throat Singing

Further reading:

‘Talking’ seals mimic sounds from human speech, and validate a Boston legend

How do marine mammals produce sounds?

Elephant communication

Hoover the talking seal:

Janice, a gray seal who learned to mimic human speech and song:

Wikie, the orca who mimics human speech:

Kosik, an elephant who mimics human speech:

Gef the “talking mongoose”:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Before we get started, I have some announcements! First, you may have noticed we have a new logo! It’s by Susanna King of Flourish Media, who did a fantastic job! Susanna is also a listener, which is awesome. I’ve put a link to Flourish Media in the show notes if you have a company or something that needs professional graphic design.

If you’re interested in getting a shirt or mug with the new Strange Animals Podcast logo on it, I’m figuring out the best company to use for merch. If you sign up to our mailing list, as soon as merch is available I’ll be sending an email out about it, and I’ll include a discount code you can use to save some money! I’ve linked to the mailing list in the show notes, and it’s also linked on the website and my social media, but if you can’t find it, just send me a message and I’ll reply with the link.

The final announcement is that my cat Poe is finally home and recovering from a scary illness. He developed what’s called pyothorax, which is an infection in the chest, and in Poe’s case we still don’t know what caused it. After a week in the veterinary intensive care unit, he’s finally home and getting better all the time. That’s why last week’s episode was so short, and if you messaged me this week about something and I seemed impatient when I replied, that’s why. I just haven’t had any mental energy to concentrate on anything but Poe. Thank you to everyone at the Animal Emergency and Specialty Center of Knoxville for taking such good care of him.

We’ve got something fun and a little different this time, inspired by two things. First, I saw a tweet about a captive beluga whale who had apparently learned to mimic human speech and one night told a diver in his pool to get out. Then the awesome podcast BewilderBeasts had a segment about a harbor seal in Maine who was rescued by a fisherman as a pup, which reminded me of a similar situation with another harbor seal in Maine, Hoover the Talking Seal. That’s right, it’s an episode about mammals that can talk, including one of my favorite cryptozoological mysteries ever.

Before we learn about talking animals, we need to learn a little bit about how humans talk. Humans produce most vocal sounds using our larynx, which is sometimes called a voicebox. The human larynx is situated at the top of the throat, and it helps us breathe, helps keep food from going down the wrong tube and into the lungs, and enables us to make sounds. It consists of cartilage, small muscles, and flaps of tissue called vocal folds or vocal cords. There are two kinds of vocal folds: the true vocal folds that are connected to muscles and actually produce sound, and the false vocal folds that don’t have any connected muscles and just help with resonance.

Usually resonance just makes the sound louder, but humans have learned to do amazing things with our voices. Some cultures use the false vocal folds to create a secondary tone. It’s called overtone singing, throat singing, or harmonic singing. I’m still completely in love with the Mongolian folk metal band the Hu and am now delighted that I can mention them again, because they use throat singing in their music. Throat singing produces overtones with various different sounds, depending on the technique used, but it can be hard to pick them out of a song if you’re not sure what you’re hearing. So instead of playing a clip of a Hu song, here’s a clip of a musician demonstrating various kinds of throat singing while also playing along on the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. The morin khuur only has two strings so the drone and whistle sounds you’re hearing are not from that instrument, they’re made by the musician’s voice. [Musician is Zagd Ochir AKA Sumiyabazar.]

[clip of throat singing]

When you think of animals that could potentially talk in human language, naturally you’d assume our closest relatives, the great apes, could learn to talk. But while apes have larynxes that are similar to ours, they don’t have the fine control over their vocal cords that humans do. But the larynx isn’t the only part of the body involved in human speech, it’s just the part that makes noise. We use the tongue and lips to form sounds into words, which takes a lot of fine control over very small muscles. Apes don’t have that kind of control of the mouth muscles. More importantly, they don’t have the same language centers in the brain that humans do. Apes can learn to use very simple versions of sign language or indicate words on a computer, but they aren’t able to use speech and language the way we do. In the wild, apes communicate with sounds, but they also communicate a lot more with gestures and body language, so they don’t need to speak words.

In the 1940s and 50s, a human couple who were both primate biologists worked with a young chimpanzee named Viki, trying to teach her spoken language as well as signs. While Viki was a quick learner and showed high intelligence, she only managed to ever speak seven words, and only four of those clearly. Those four words were mama and papa, cup, and up. I found a clip of Viki saying the word ‘cup,’ and while the audio was really bad, I don’t think she was actually vocalizing the word, just making the consonant sounds with her mouth.

But there are other animals that can mimic human speech, even if they don’t necessarily understand what they’re saying. Parrots and some other birds are the prime examples, of course, but we’re talking about talking mammals today.

Back in episode 23 I mentioned Hoover the talking seal and played this clip of his voice, one of only a few recordings we have of him.

[talking seal recording]

That may sound like a gruff man with a strong accent, but it’s a seal. In spring of 1971, in Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, which is in the extreme northeastern United States, a man found a baby harbor seal. He and his brother-in-law George Swallow hunted around for the seal pup’s mother, but sadly they found her dead body. George Swallow decided to take the baby seal home and see if he could keep him alive.

The baby seal ate so fast that Swallow and his wife named him Hoover, after the vacuum cleaner brand. Hoover stayed in a pond in the back of their house, and he not only survived, he did really well. Swallow basically treated Hoover like a dog and the two hung out together all the time. If Swallow had to go somewhere, Hoover rode along in the car. Before long, Hoover started imitating Swallow’s speech.

Finally, though, Hoover got so big and was eating so much fish that the Swallows couldn’t keep him. The New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts agreed to take him in, and there Hoover stayed, happy and healthy until he died in 1985. When Swallow brought Hoover to the aquarium, he mentioned that the seal could talk. No one believed him. I wish I could have seen the keepers’ faces when Hoover first said, “Hello there!” in a voice that sounded just like George Swallow’s.

Here’s another clip of Hoover talking:

But if a chimpanzee can’t manage to speak human words, how can a seal? Seals of all kinds have a larynx that’s very similar to the human larynx, which allows a seal to physically imitate human vowel sounds. It also has the mental drive to imitate sounds and the mental flexibility to do a good job imitating sounds that aren’t normal seal noises. Seals are highly social animals and communicate with each other with a complex range of sounds.

A study published in 2019 focused on a trio of young gray seals, named Janice, Zola, and Gandalf, who learned to imitate vocal tones, even tunes, proving that Hoover’s ability to imitate his caregiver wasn’t just a fluke. The seals were released into the wild after a year. This is a clip of one of them singing in response to a computerized tune:

[clip of seal singing]

It’s not a coincidence that animals learn to imitate human speech while in captivity. Seals and other animals who communicate with sound learn to imitate what they hear most often. In wild animals, that’s almost always the calls of other animals of their own species, but animals in captivity often hear humans most of the time.

In the case of Wikie, an orca, or killer whale, she was taught to imitate human sounds by researchers. Wikie was born in captivity in 2001 and in 2018, researchers reported that they had taught her to imitate several words, including hello.

Whales and other cetaceans have very different anatomy from seals. They make lots of sounds, from clicks and whistles used for communication and navigation, to the incredibly loud, complex songs that some baleen whales use to attract mates. But they don’t always make those sounds with their larynx.

Toothed whales, including dolphins, make a lot of sounds with the blowhole, which is the specialized nostril at the top of the whale’s head that allows it to take a breath without having to stop moving or put its head out of the water. Toothed whales have specialized air sacs near the blowhole that allow a whale to make high-frequency sounds for echolocation, and it uses its larynx to make whistles and other noises. It may also clap its jaws together and slap the water with its tail or flippers to make sounds, especially ones that signal aggression.

Baleen whales have an inflatable pouch called the laryngeal sac that allows a whale to make extremely loud sounds with its larynx. Many animals have something similar to the laryngeal sac, including some primates. If you remember episode 76, where we talked about the siamang, a type of gibbon, it has a throat pouch called a gular sac that increases the resonance and loudness of its voice.

Orcas in particular imitate sounds made by other orcas, so much so that when an orca pod moves into new territory, it will adopt the sounds made by the local orcas. They will also imitate the sounds made by sea lions and bottlenose dolphins. It’s not surprising, then, that Wikie was able to learn to imitate human words. Here’s some audio of Wikie saying hello (sort of):

[orca speech]

Another mammal that can learn to imitate human speech, at least occasionally, is the elephant! One famous talking elephant is Kosik [koh-shik], an Indian elephant in South Korea who has learned to say yes, no, sit, and several other words, in Korean of course. Kosik puts the tip of his trunk in his mouth and exhales while moving his trunk around to produce the sounds.

The elephant does use its larynx to make sounds, but it also has the option to use its trunk as a resonant chamber to make the sounds deeper. Some of the sounds an elephant makes are below the range of human hearing, as are many sounds baleen whales make. The elephant’s larynx is especially flexible too compared to most mammals, and as if its trunk wasn’t enough, it also has a pharyngeal pouch at the base of the tongue that it uses to produce low frequency calls.

This pharyngeal pouch is different from the baleen whale’s laryngeal sac and the siamang’s gular sac, although all three are used for similar purposes. The elephant actually stores water in the pouch, several liters of water. If an elephant can’t find water and is thirsty, it will stick its trunk deep into its mouth and into the pouch, then constrict the muscles around the pouch to push the water up. Then it can drink the water. It’s like having a built-in water bottle that also allows you to make deep noises.

Batyr was another elephant who reportedly learned to imitate some words and phrases, these in Russian and Kazakh. He lived in a zoo in Kazakhstan until his death in 1993. Like Kosik, Batyr produced the words by sticking his trunk in his mouth, with one keeper reporting that he actually moved his tongue into place with his trunk to make the right sounds. It’s possible that’s exactly what he was doing, since an elephant’s trunk is much more dexterous than an elephant’s tongue. He would also sometimes imitate other animals heard in the zoo.

All the animals we’ve discussed so far were only imitating human words. While they may have learned to use the words appropriately, for instance saying the word water when they wanted a drink, there’s no evidence that any of these animals truly understood the meaning of the words they learned to imitate. But there is one talking animal that was supposed to understand every word he said, a strange and elusive animal only seen by a few people but heard by many more. He’s called Gef the talking mongoose, and he’s one of my very favorite cryptids.

Gef’s story starts in 1931 on the Isle of Man, a British island in the Irish Sea. A family lived in a remote farmhouse near the village of Darby: James Irving (who went by Jim), his wife Margaret, and their twelve-year-old daughter Voirrey. They also had a sheepdog named Mona. The house was a big stone one with wood paneling inside, but with a gap between the stone and wood. These days that would be where the insulation would go to keep the house warmer, but this was before modern insulation and as far as I’ve read the gap was empty. The house didn’t have electricity either.

One night in 1931 the family heard an animal rustling and scratching around inside the gap. This probably wasn’t an unusual occurrence, since there are mice and rats on the Isle of Man along with stoats and ferrets. Any of those might decide to investigate the house and make a little home in the gap between the outer and inner walls.

In this case, though, the animal started out making little animal sounds but soon started trying to talk. At first it sounded like a baby babbling, but within a few weeks it was speaking clearly in English.

The family didn’t know what to think. At first they actually tried to poison the animal, but before long they made peace with it and named him Gef. They rarely saw Gef, just talked to him through the walls. Occasionally they’d see a bright eye peering at them through a knothole or see Gef outside, whisking across the fields. He wasn’t very big, only about a foot long, or 30 cm, including his bushy tail. He was yellowish in color with a slender ferret-like body, and his tail had a black tip. But he wasn’t a ferret, and apparently his front feet were shaped more like tiny human hands than like an animal’s paws. Gef described himself as a mongoose, specifically, “a little extra, extra clever mongoose.”

The weird thing is, there were mongooses on the Isle of Man at the time even though the mongoose is native to Africa, southern Asia, and southern Europe—but only where it’s warm most of the time. They certainly don’t live on the Isle of Man ordinarily. A man who owned a neighboring farm had imported some to kill rabbits, since there are no foxes on the island to keep the rabbit population down. There are even occasional sightings of what might be mongooses on the island today. The mongoose resembles mustelids like weasels and ferrets, but isn’t very closely related to them, and some species are yellowish in color. But the mongoose is much larger than Gef and has a more tapered tail. Also, mongooses don’t actually talk.

The meerkat is a type of mongoose, so if you ever watched Meerkat Manor you know a lot about mongooses already.

Anyway, Gef was clearly not actually a mongoose. The question is whether he was a real animal at all. In many ways, he had more in common with supernatural entities like poltergeists and brownies than with ordinary animals. He sometimes seemed to know about things before they happened, he seemed able to vanish when he didn’t want to be seen, and he made fantastic claims about his history. He also sprinkled words and phrases from other languages into his speech.

At the time, most people on the island thought Voirrey had invented Gef for attention, or maybe in an attempt to get her family to move somewhere more comfortable. She didn’t like living on a farm where the nearest neighbor was two miles away. But Voirrey claimed to the very end of her life—and she lived until 2005—that she hadn’t invented Gef and in fact Gef had ruined her life in some ways. She was teased about him in school and hated all the attention surrounding him, so much so that when she grew up and moved away, she actually changed her name to try and avoid any further publicity. She almost never gave interviews about Gef, and her family certainly never made any money off their resident talking animal even though they were very poor.

These days, a lot of suspicion focuses on Voirrey’s father, Jim Irving. Almost all of the information we have about what Gef said and did comes from Jim’s diaries and letters. He wrote a lot about Gef and apparently planned to write a book about the family’s experiences. The famous investigator of mysterious phenomena, Harry Price, told Jim there was no money in a book about Gef—and then promptly published his own book about Gef, which was a mean trick. Harry Price thought Voirrey was speaking as Gef by somehow throwing her voice, probably by using the acoustic properties of the double-walled house.

It’s possible, of course, that Gef was invented by Jim as a way to make Voirrey happier about having little animals scrabbling about in the walls. It might have started as a family joke that got out of control when people outside the family heard about it. Jim sounds like he was a little bit of a showman and had big dreams. He might have decided that his little family in-joke about Gef the talking mongoose would make a good book, and started spreading the story around as though it was real. Before long, people were swarming to his farmhouse to listen for Gef, Voirrey was being teased and blamed for the phenomenon, and people were demanding proof that Gef was real. Jim couldn’t admit he’d made the whole thing up and risk everyone getting angry.

Jim had traveled widely when he was younger and knew a smattering of words from other languages—the same words that Gef sprinkled into his speech. And remember, Jim is the main source of information about Gef. I wonder if Voirrey understood that her father had painted himself into a corner by telling people about Gef, because she tried to help prove the talking mongoose was real. She produced some hairs she said came from Gef, but when analyzed they were found to be identical to Mona the sheepdog’s fur. Voirrey produced some footprints and tooth prints supposedly made by Gef in plasticine, but they look a lot like they were made by someone poking designs into the plasticine with a sharp stick.

Gef became less and less active over the years, disappearing for months at a time, and by 1939 he was pretty much gone. Voirrey was grown by then and probably long tired of the joke. Jim died in 1945.

Whatever or whoever was behind the talking mongoose story, it’s definitely fun to think about. Gef was snarky, clever, sometimes funny, always weird. For instance, when Jim told Gef “We are having a dictaphone to record your voice,” Gef replied, “Who’s we? Is it that spook man Harry Price? Why, I won’t speak into it. I’ll go and smash his windows. I’ll drop a brick on him as he lies in bed. Me, at the age of 83?” Gef claimed he was born in India on June 7, 1852. Sometimes he said he was an earthbound spirit, sometimes he said he was not a spirit, just a mongoose. Once he said, “I am a ghost in the form of a weasel, and I shall haunt you with weird noises and clanking chains.” Mostly, though, he just recounted village gossip and demanded treats. Occasionally he killed a rabbit and left it for Voirrey like a pet cat leaving a mouse for its owner.

If my cats could speak, I’m pretty sure Poe would be complaining nonstop about having to be in the hospital for a whole week. Actually, he is complaining nonstop about it, just not in actual words. But I understand him anyway.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 224: Diprotodon and Friends



Thanks to Ruby and Tex for their suggestions this week!

Diprotodon was big and had a big nose:

Koala!

The bush thick-knee looks like it has regular knees, actually:

Show Transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week let’s head to Australia for a short episode about three interesting animals. Thanks to Ruby and Tex for their suggestions!

Recently, we had an episode about the wombat—episode 208, to be exact. Ruby suggested we talk about an extinct giant wombat called Diprotodon too, because while we touched on it in the wombat episode, an animal that awesome deserves more attention. Also, Ruby had just gone to the Australian Museum and learned about it, and naturally wanted to share that knowledge. So let’s find out more about Diprotodon!

Diprotodon was the largest marsupial ever known. It stood around 6 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and up to 12 feet long, or 4 meters. It was related to the wombat but probably didn’t look much like one, although I bet it was pretty cute. It was heavily built and its legs were pillar-like, similar to a rhinoceros’s legs, but its feet were actually kind of small in comparison. It had massive flat front teeth and long claws.

So did those big teeth and claws mean it ate meat? Nope, it was a plant-eater, just like the wombat. It ate plants of all kinds in the savannas and plains where it lived, and its teeth were adapted to shear through branches and roots like chisels and grind up plant material at the same time. It also did a lot of digging, which is what it used its long claws for. The female had a rear-facing pouch so dirt wouldn’t get on her joey while she was digging.

Diprotodon had a larger nasal aperture in its skull than would be expected for an animal its size. It probably just had a really big nose, but some researchers think it might actually have had a short trunk sort of like a tapir’s.

Diprotodon probably lived in small groups made up of related females and their babies, while males probably spent most of their time either solitary or in small bachelor groups. It may have been migratory too. It went extinct somewhere between 42,000 and 25,000 years ago, along with many other species of Australian megafauna. Researchers think climate change was probably the main cause of its extinction, as the climate where it lived became drier.

Diprotodon was also related to the modern koala. We talked about the koala in episode 94, but Tex wanted to know more about it.

In episode 94 we learned that the koala smells like a cough drop because of all the eucalyptus leaves it eats. Eucalyptus oil is a common ingredient in cough drops. Here’s some other basic information about the koala from that episode, and then we’ll go on to learn something new about it.

The koala is a marsupial that lives near the coasts of eastern and southern Australia in eucalyptus trees, also called gum trees. It’s gray, gray-brown, or brown in color, with no tail, short floofy ears, a flat face with a big black nose, and long claws that help it cling to tree trunks. Almost its entire diet is made up of eucalyptus leaves, which are toxic, but the koala’s liver produces a type of protein that breaks down the toxins so it doesn’t get sick. It spends almost its whole life in trees except when it needs to move from one tree to another one.

In a study published in May 2020, researchers finally figured out how the koala gets water. Until this study, everyone assumed that the koala usually got enough moisture from the leaves it eats that it didn’t need to drink water most of the time. Now, though, researchers have observed koalas licking water from tree trunks during rain. This makes sense, because koalas prefer to stay in a tree whenever possible. The study determined that the koala gets about three-quarters of the moisture it needs from leaves, and during droughts it will come down from its tree to drink from streams. But in ordinary circumstances, it licks water from the tree trunks during and just after rain, and will do so even when other water sources are available.

I bet if you called someone a tree-licker, they would think it’s an insult, but really it’s adorable. You can say, “You’re such a tree-licker” to someone, and if they get mad at you, you can explain about koalas, hopefully before they hit you.

Let’s finish this short episode with a type of bird. It’s called the bush thick-knee. It’s nocturnal and while it can fly, it spends most of its time walking along the ground looking for small animals to eat. It’s a large, slender bird with a wingspan over three feet across, or one meter, and long legs.

The bush thick-knee eats frogs, lizard, small snakes, small mammals, crustaceans and mollusks, and insects and spiders. It will sometimes eat seeds or other plant material too. During the day it hides in long grass where it’s hidden from predators and has some shade, and at night it comes out and walks around. It’s especially active on moonlit nights.

And during those moonlit nights, or dark nights, it makes a sound like this:

[bush thick-knee sound]

Apparently people who live where the bush thick-knee is common find the sound really annoying, but I think it’s awesome and creepy.

Okay, that’s it. I actually have a serious reason for this episode being so short, which I won’t bother you with, but next week we’re going to have a good long episode. Until then, listen to this bird, just listen to it!

[more bush thick-knee calls]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 223: The Elephantnose Fish and the Burmese Star Tortoise



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This week let’s learn about an amazing little fish and an awesome tortoise! All the pictures here were taken by ME at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga!

Further Reading:

Star tortoise makes meteoric comeback

The astonishing elephantnose fish:

Burmese star tortoises:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. I’m fully vaccinated now so I’m able to go out and about cautiously, still wearing a mask of course, and this weekend I went to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. I had a fantastic time and saw lots and lots of amazing fish and other animals! If you ever get a chance to visit, it’s definitely worth it.

When I got home, I kept thinking about one particular fish. I wanted to learn more about it. So I decided to make an episode about that fish and another animal I saw at the aquarium.

The fish that captivated me so much is called the elephantnose fish. I’d never seen anything like it. The one I saw was about the length of my hand, dark gray or black in color, and looked like a pretty ordinary fish except for the proboscis that gives it its name. The fish has a flexible projection from its nose that it was using to probe around in the gravel at the bottom of its river habitat.

I should mention that the Tennessee Aquarium has enormous displays, beautifully designed to mimic the animals’ natural habitat and give them plenty of room to move around. There’s one tidal animals display in the ocean side of the aquarium where the water sloshes through and around rocks to mimic the tide. It’s fascinating to watch the fish in that exhibit stay pretty much motionless despite the water’s movement, because that’s what they’re adapted for. So there’s plenty of opportunities to see an animal’s behavior.

Anyway, I took lots of pictures of the elephantnose fish and when I got home, I started researching it. It turns out that it’s way more interesting even than I thought!

It lives in rivers and other freshwater in central Africa and grows up to 9 inches long, or 23 cm. That’s according to the info display next to the exhibit. The display also said the fish was a species called Peter’s elephantnose fish, although it’s possible they have more than one species on display. There are a lot of elephantnose fish, more properly called mormyrids or freshwater elephantfish, and many of them have this interesting proboscis.

The proboscis isn’t actually a nose like an elephant’s trunk. It’s technically a modified chin and mouth, called the Schnauzenorgan. The elephantnose fish mostly eats small worms and insect larvae, and it especially loves mosquito larvae.

The elephantnose fish uses electroreception to navigate the muddy waters where it lives and find food. Its whole body, and especially its Schnauzenorgan, is covered with electrocyte cells that can detect tiny electrical pulses. If you remember way back in episode ten, about electric animals, many animals can sense the weak bioelectrical fields that other animals generate in their nerves and muscles. It’s especially common in fish since water conducts electricity much better than air does. But the elephantnose fish also generates a stronger electric field of its own, which it uses as a sort of sonar. It generates the field in special electric organs in its tail, and as it moves around in the water, the electric field comes in contact with other things—plants, rocks, other fish, and so on. It’s not strong enough to give an animal a shock, but it’s strong enough for the elephantnose fish to easily sense changes in its environment. The fish can tell what it’s near because its electrical field interacts differently with different things. A rock, for instance, doesn’t conduct electricity so the fish probably senses it as a blank spot in its electrical field, while a plant may conduct electricity even better than water and therefore changes the shape of the fish’s electrical field in a particular way. But it doesn’t generate its bioelectric field all the time. It can control when it discharges pulses of electricity the same way a dolphin can control when it sends out pulses of sound. If the fish feels threatened, maybe by another elephantnose fish nosing in on its territory, it will pulse much faster so it can keep tabs on what the other fish is doing—plus, of course, the other elephantnose fish can sense its pulses and can interpret how aggressive the first fish is. Female elephantnose fish generate a slightly different electrical field than males, which allows males and females to find each other to spawn.

You may be thinking about all this and wondering how the elephantnose fish can sense the tiny bioelectric charges of its tiny prey over its own electric field. Its electric field is much stronger than that of a teensy worm hiding in the mud, after all. It would be like trying to hear a bird chirping outside through a closed window while someone is playing music really loudly in the room you’re in. It turns out that the elephantnose fish is able to filter out its own electrical field so it can sense other things—but at the same time it’s still able to navigate using its electrical field.

The elephantnose fish needs a large brain to interpret all these complicated bioelectrical signals, and it has a brain to body size ratio equivalent to birds and possibly equivalent to primates. It’s not a social fish, and intelligence seems to develop from complex social interactions, although the fish is considered pretty intelligent. I mean, generally fish are not masterminds, so it’s not hard to be considered an intelligent fish, but the elephantnose fish has the brainpower to pull it off.

The elephantnose fish lives along the bottom of rivers and ponds, usually murky ones, and is mostly nocturnal. For a long time researchers thought it probably couldn’t see very well. It turns out, though, that it sees extremely well. Its retina is made up of cup-shaped cells that act like tiny mirrors, reflecting light and concentrating it so it can see better even in low light.

The elephantnose fish is a popular pet, but it is hard to keep. You have to really know what you’re doing and have a really big aquarium that’s set up just right. The males are aggressive toward each other and while the fish isn’t threatened in the wild, from what I could find out it has never bred in captivity.

Speaking of breeding in captivity, our other animal this week isn’t a fish but a reptile. It’s called the Burmese star tortoise and unlike the elephantnose fish, it’s critically threatened in the wild. It also doesn’t have a Schauzenorgan and instead just has a short little snub nose and lives on land in dry forests in Myanmar. It’s basically the opposite of the elephantnose fish.

It gets the name star tortoise because of its pretty shell markings that look sort of like stars. It can grow up to a foot long, or 30 cm, and eats grass, fruit, and other plant material, but will also eat mushrooms, insects, and snails. It has a steeply domed carapace, the proper name for its shell, with big bumps on it. It lives in central Myanmar in south Asia, but by the late 1990s it was almost extinct in the wild. The tortoise was eaten by locals, but mostly it was captured and sold as a pet or as a medicine ingredient even though it’s a tortoise, not a medicine. This was despite the tortoise being a protected species in the country.

Conservationists realized they had to act fast before this lovely tortoise went extinct. In 2004, authorities caught smugglers with 175 of the tortoises, so Myanmar’s conservation group created tortoise breeding facilities within three of the country’s wildlife sanctuaries. They consulted zoo veterinarians and tortoise experts from all over the world to make sure the rescued tortoises were as happy and healthy as possible. The first captive-bred Burmese star tortoise babies had only been hatched the year before, since it’s hard to breed in captivity.

Each sanctuary has guards that protect it from anyone who wants to sneak in and steal the animals to sell, and 150 of the tortoises have little radio trackers attached to their shells so conservationists can keep an eye on exactly where they are. They go out and check on the tagged tortoises every other week.

Since 2004, over 16,000 Burmese star tortoises have hatched in captivity and about a thousand have been returned to the wild. They’d release more into the wild, but the conservationists are worried that poachers would collect them to sell. The country of Myanmar is in a long-running civil war, unfortunately, and that makes it hard for the people living there to concentrate on conservation. Their main goal is just to stay safe. Hopefully things will get better soon for the people of Myanmar, and when they do, the tortoises will be waiting.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!